Legwork, the term for reporters going to great lengths to find and question news sources and folks who have made news either deliberately or unintentionally, has long epitomized journalistic integrity and enterprise.
But the practice is under threat today as public officials seek ever more to avoid the scrutiny that comes with confronting tough questions.
So it was no real surprise the other day, when the Los Angeles police union accused reporters of “stalking” because they went to the front door of an officer at least partially responsible for a deadly 2021 error that blew up a bomb disposal vehicle, displacing dozens of persons from their homes and seriously injuring 17. Police Chief Michel Moore chimed in, claiming, “Such unannounced visits unnecessarily create fear and intimidation on the part of our people and their family…”
In the incident, police disposed of illegal commercial fireworks but ended up destroying their own “total containment vehicle” and mutilating parts of a surrounding residential area. The city has paid more than $5 million so far for damage caused, with more than 100 claims not settled.
Yet, Moore, the Police Protective League and the police department’s inspector general long refused to name the officers responsible.
After the Los Angeles Times eventually learned who was involved, reporters attempted to get their side of the story this summer.
Two reporters went to the front door of Sgt. Stephanie Alcocer, departing when asked to leave her property. Their behavior was straight out of Journalism 101, as portrayed in films from “All the President’s Men” to “She Said.”
But the union called it “stalking.” A union email said, “Random people knocking on our doors, following us or stalking us until we get home is wrong.”
This is the same union whose members sometimes arrest reporters covering large demonstrations even when they’re wearing credentials issued by police.
At stake here is whether citizens are entitled to know which officers in their pay have made serious mistakes and whether they’ve been disciplined. Alcocer, it turns out, was barely chastised.
A bomb squad veteran, she reportedly constructed the “countercharge” used to blow up the fireworks inside the bomb containment vehicle, a specially built armored truck which failed to smother the explosion.
Identified in the inspector general’s report only as Bomb Tech E, she was suspended for 10 days, but later promoted to sergeant.
The police response to the Times’ long pursuit of this story was typical of today’s government officials; they’re paid by taxpayers, but often resist answering to them.
In government by press release, officials tell their sanitized, frequently minimized, version of events and expect media and the public to lap it up.
Many government agencies forbid employees from talking to reporters without prior approval by press relations officials, sometimes themselves former reporters who joined government because of media layoffs or just for higher pay.
This reaches into the top levels of government, where President Biden has given fewer press conferences to date than any president since Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, about one-fourth as many as ex-President Donald Trump. When modern presidents do talk to reporters, it is often while walking to helicopters.
California governors are much the same. Before the coronavirus pandemic, they often held press conferences to promote various projects. Now, only rarely.